Mascots Galore

I’m constantly intrigued by the names colleges give to their athletic teams, but never more so than during the NCAA basketball tournaments.

Of the 68 men’s basketball teams who started the march to the national championship almost a month ago, five (Arizona, Kansas State, Kentucky, Villanova, and Weber State) are named Wildcats. But those weren’t the only cats represented in the tournament. Two teams (Memphis and Texas Southern) are Tigers. Two others (Milwaukee and Pittsburgh) are Panthers. Brigham Young’s mascot is a cougar, which just so happens to be the same thing as a panther. Or a mountain lion, which wasn’t represented in the tourney.

Just as popular as cat mascots were birds. Cardinals (Iowa State and Louisville) tied with eagles (American University and N.C. Central) as the most popular bird. But there were also hawks (St. Joseph’s), bluejays (Creighton) and jayhawks (Kansas). And let’s not forget ducks (Oregon). The most interesting mascots in the bird category were the Fightin’ Blue Hens (Delaware) and the Chanticleers (Coastal Carolina). I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t know a chanticleer was a proud, fierce rooster until I looked it up. Good thing Delaware didn’t play Coastal Carolina. The feathers would have been flying.

Dogs were well represented, too. Though only one bulldog team (Gonzaga) made it to the tournament, there were also Great Danes (Albany), terriers (Wofford) and huskies (Connecticut).

Other animal mascots included horses (Cal Poly Mustangs and Western Michigan Broncos), bison (North Dakota State) and buffaloes (Colorado), wolves (North Carolina State Wolfpack and New Mexico Lobos), bears (Baylor and Mercer) and bruins (UCLA), another name for bears. Let’s not forget bearcats (Cincinnati), which is neither a bear nor a cat but a member of the mongoose family, or wolverines (Michigan) and badgers (Wisconsin), which are both members of the weasel family. And there were rams (VCU), longhorns (Texas) and gators (Florida).

More fascinating were the puzzling non-animal team names. Like Syracuse Orange or Stanford Cardinal or Harvard Crimson, none of which makes sense to me. Until I watched St. Louis University play, I didn’t know that a Billiken is a nebulous good-luck figure. Or that the Manhattan College Jaspers are named after a monk who taught there in the late nineteenth century and who brought the fledgling game of baseball to campus. The Xavier Musketeers were so named in 1925 at the suggestion of Rev. Francis Finn, who thought it a fitting way to recognize the school’s commitment to chivalry and its strong ties with French history and culture.

I also learned that “shocking” is another term for harvesting wheat, making Shockers a perfect name for Wichita State teams. But why, in a city more than a thousand miles from the ocean, would Tulsa call their teams the Golden Hurricanes?

My next-to-favorite team name belongs to the Ragin’ Cajuns of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. My favorite? You guessed it. It belongs to the teams who wore orange and white. Hearty congratulations to the University of Tennessee men’s and women’s teams for making it to the Sweet Sixteen in their respective tournaments and condolences for not making it further.

Their name needs no explaining. Everyone reading this column knows why Big Orange teams are called Volunteers. Or do they?

(April 13, 2014)

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